The Drug Charade

Can we have a round of applause, sports fans, for the International Olympic Committee? Although hardly an athletic event has escaped the taint of doping--the red-blood-cell booster EPO has been blamed for the deaths of at least 25 cyclists since 1987, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids in Seoul in 1988, 1996 Olympic shot-put champion Randy Barnes was banned for life in 1998 after he tested positive for the steroid androstenedione and Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin was found guilty of tampering with a surprise drug test two years after soaring from obscurity to win three golds in Atlanta in '96, to name just a few who have been caught up in doping controversies--the IOC has vowed to make the Sydney Olympics cleaner than a Ping-Pong match in a convent. To that end, it will have many, many doping experts in Sydney. Sure, physicians, scientists and technicians conducting drug tests will be there too. But the real experts on drug testing are athletes like German track star Dieter Baumann, who won the 5,000-meter run in Atlanta and tested positive for the body-building steroid nandrolone last year. And Cuban high-jumper Javier Sotomayor, who won Olympic gold in 1992 and tested positive for cocaine in '99. And Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who tested positive for nandrolone last July. And French cyclist Emmanuel Magnien, whose urine showed traces of corticosteroids. All denied knowingly taking banned compounds (as did Johnson, Barnes and Smith), arguing, for instance, that they tested positive because they unwittingly took nutritional supplements spiked with contraband. All were cleared by athletic federations and the IOC to compete Down Under.

Fans should be forgiven for concluding that the IOC and the world's sport federations have a teeny credibility gap when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. So many athletes who have tested positive for banned substances will be running, jumping and pedaling in Sydney that these Games are likely to set a record for the most suspect competitors going for gold. "It's human nature to want to be the best, and if the only way to do that is to take drugs, then some people will use them," says Don Talbot, head coach of Australia's powerhouse swim team. "And they won't be using only stuff we can detect: they'll be using something developed especially for these Games that may not be detectable."

The real doping scandal is not that athletes succumb to the pressure to go higher, faster, farther through chemistry. It is, rather, the reluctance of sport authorities to institute tough drug-testing policies and to impose tough sanctions. "The IOC has always viewed drugs as a public-relations problem," says Frank Shorter, the American marathoner recently named to head the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which will police drug use in American amateur sports (after Sydney). In other words, if no drugs are detected, there is no problem.

Although the IOC has prohibited doping since 1967 and has routinely tested competitors since the 1968 Games in Mexico City, there have been uncounted numbers of drug-enhanced performances. In July a Berlin court found two ex-officials of East German sports guilty of "systematic... doping" of the former nation's Olympians, pumping up the (mostly) unwitting athletes with steroids from 1974 to 1989. The IOC caught one. In the last decade 27 Chinese swimmers have tested positive, at world meets, for banned substances. The world swimming federation, regarded as tough on drugs, caught them. The IOC didn't. Under Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC has never demanded unannounced testing outside the Olympics, the best way to catch cheats, and even its tests at Olympics past have been controversial. In Atlanta, three or four urine samples that tested positive for steroids vanished. Endocrinologist Dr. Don Catlin of UCLA, an expert on doping and director of the drug-testing lab in Atlanta, says, "I don't have a clear idea" about what happened to those samples. "I passed them somewhere upstream from me," to the IOC medical commission, which did nothing with them. The IOC says it decided not to pursue the cases because it was concerned that the new spectrometer that performed the analysis might not stand up to a challenge. Concerns about the IOC's commitment to drug-free Games resurfaced at last year's IOC meeting on doping. White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who attended, says he encountered "an enormous animosity from Samaranch and crew." And although McCaffrey and others at the meeting demanded an independent testing body, the resulting World Anti-Doping Agency is run by IOC members. Samaranch defends the IOC's antidoping record: "We were the first organization fighting doping. In 1968 we began this fight. We won many battles, but we did not win the war."

The IOC claims that Sydney will boast the best drug-testing lab ever at an Olympics. But it's not so much technology that will make the difference as policy. In the most significant antidoping step in years, athletes in Sydney will be subject to both random out-of-competition tests and blood tests. The IOC modified the Olympic charter last year to allow blood tests, and any athlete who fails to sign a form agreeing to submit to them cannot compete. In another first, the IOC will institute a test for erythropoietin (EPO), which by increasing the body's production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells can improve performance 15 percent in endurance sports. The Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory will conduct 400 random blood and urine EPO tests (out of some 10,200 athletes, not necessarily medalists). The test requires both blood and urine, and can pick up EPO used as much as 20 days before. Unfortunately, athletes can achieve the same endurance-boosting effect through plain old blood doping, says Charles Yesalis of Penn State University, in which they bank their own blood and reinject it days later. The EPO tests won't pick that up.

The IOC has a better chance of catching the ever-popular steroids, but even that is problematic. There are hundreds of steroids; fewer than 100 are banned. One American coach who says he developed drug regimes for athletes in Atlanta points out that the testosterone molecule, for instance, can be chemically modified in millions of ways that leave its muscle-building power intact but disguise it in drug screens. Even simpler is to go off drugs a few weeks before competition; the muscle-bulking effect of steroids endures, but the stuff clears the urine in plenty of time to test clean.

Some doping favorites cannot be detected at all with the IOC's current tests. Leading the list are human growth hormone (hGH) and insulinlike growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Both build muscle. A Chinese coach was caught with a suitcase full of hGH at the World Swimming Championships in Australia in 1998. And athletes called the Atlanta Olympics "the human-growth-hormone Games." Yet in July the IOC decided that there was no reliable test for synthetic hGH, so athletes in Sydney won't be screened for it. "Growth hormone is wide open now," admits Catlin. IGF-1 can also slip through, since tests cannot distinguish between the naturally produced and introduced varieties. Other newcomers--plasma expanders, synthetic blood and artificial oxygen carriers like perfluorocarbons--deliver more oxygen to muscles and so improve performance in endurance events. They can't be detected in urine. And the latest entrant, a powerful variant of EPO called novel erythropoietic stimulating protein, has been spirited out of labs to some athletes in Europe. Injected only once a week, rather than three times like EPO, it produces the same red-blood-cell-stimulating effect.

A rare bright spot in the doping picture is the recent crackdown by China. Over the past decade China had succeeded East Germany as the country with the worst reputation for state-sponsored doping. Some athletes and coaches argue that international sports are unfair because, for instance, Caucasian ethnic groups typically have significantly higher levels of muscle-building testosterone than North Asians do. Some athletes therefore pump up their testosterone to levels just below the allowable threshold, a source inside Beijing sports circles told NEWSWEEK, "as a way of leveling the playing field." But with Beijing vying for the 2008 Olympics, priorities have changed. In mid-July China banned Wu Yanyan, arguably its best swimmer and the world-record holder in the 200-meter medley, from competition. She had tested positive for anabolic steroids in May. By July, China had conducted 1,888 out-of-competition drug tests, with 10 positive results, says Shi Kangcheng of the state sports agency.

Other national sports authorities still fight hard to protect athletes fingered by drug tests. UK Athletics, for instance, contended that the positive nandrolone test on track star Mark Richardson, bronze medalist in the 400-meter race at the Atlanta Games, reflected not intentional use of the banned steroid but dietary supplements combined with exercise. The International Amateur Athletic Federation rejected that argument. In any case, national sport federations also cleared Ukrainian shot-putter Aleksandr Bagach, the Atlanta bronze medalist (he tested positive for steroids) and Russian synchronized swimmer Maria Kisseleva (ephedrine) to compete in Sydney.

Australian discus-thrower Werner Reiterer, a finalist at the 1992 Olympics who retired earlier this year, charges that high-ranking Australian Olympic officials did not merely cover up rampant doping but encouraged it. "I was training my guts out every day, exhausting myself, risking injury and being beaten again and again by guys I knew were on drugs," Reiterer said last week. "It's the way a lot of us get involved, seeing the cheats win, knowing they got away with it." In his new book, "Positive," Reiterer says that the authorities timed doping tests so drugs would not be detected. In 1997, he says, "an Olympic administrator" tipped him off about what levels of various banned substances were allowed in the tests. He and other athletes would also be warned when they were selected for an out-of-competition test, Reiterer says; they simply disappeared for a few days so the dope could flush from their system before the test. Although he was using $12,000 worth of steroids a year from 1995 to 1999, Reiterer says, he never once tested positive. "The main reason the drug culture exists is that nobody wants to admit it exists," Reiterer says. "It would all come apart if the public knew there was widespread drug use. Who wants to watch cheats?"

A government-funded investigation failed to substantiate Reiterer's allegations of wrongdoing by the Australian Sports Drug Agency. But the report agreed that there is "a very real problem" with athletes who cannot be reached for random, out-of-competition drug tests. Dr. Wade Exum levels similar accusations. For nine years Exum, then at the U.S. Olympic Committee, was in charge of keeping America's teams drug-free. But the USOC, Exum said in court documents this summer (he filed a wrongful-termination suit against the committee), was "deliberately encouraging the doping of athletes." Exum alleged that "scores" of U.S. athletes tested positive for steroids during his tenure, and that the USOC turned a blind eye. The USOC denies that.

Perhaps the saddest part of doping in elite sports is that the answer to Reiterer's question--who wants to watch cheats?--is not obvious. Olympic fans want heroes and gladiators, men and women who challenge the limits of the human body and crash through them to glory. It is those pressures that have nurtured a culture of doping, and those pressures that will make eradicating that culture exceedingly difficult.